Nina and Tim Zagat

We’re in Los Angeles today, at the Bel-Air Hotel, having meetings to discuss our online strategy and to prepare for the launch of our new L.A. Marketplace guide tomorrow. There were torrential rains last night; we finally understand what Lorenz Hart was referring to when he wrote in “The Lady Is a Tramp” the words “Hate California; it’s cold and it’s damp.” But if it clears by this evening, maybe we’ll eat in the courtyard outside our room. That way, we can recreate some of the comforts of dining at home.

Eating out is, understandably, a big part of our lives. Tim does it seven or eight times a week, Nina slightly less. For many, it is the stuff of fantasies: having the world’s finest food foisted upon on us day after day by restaurant owners who are only too delighted to fawn over us even though it won’t have the slightest effect on their ratings. (Those are based entirely on ballots from thousands of anonymous survey respondents.) But for all of its obvious joys, a constant diet of restaurant meals produces its share of agita, with symptoms no antacid can cure: awkwardness, misunderstandings, and a battle of the bulge far more prolonged than any George Patton ever faced.

What are some of the problems? One is that you’ve always got to be nice to everyone. When we go into restaurants these days, we invariably run into people we know. Even on those days when you feel like disappearing into the woodwork, you can’t. It is a bit like the life of a politician. Then there are the hurt feelings. Chefs are forever sending their latest, proudest creations to us, and if we don’t like it or aren’t in the mood for it and it goes back half-eaten, spirits in the kitchen can sink like the latest soufflé. Invariably someone sheepishly emerges from the back a few moments later with a battery of questions: Is something wrong? Didn’t you like it? Can we get you something else? It makes us feel terrible.

The worst, though, is when a restaurant tries to pick up the check. We tell them we can’t let them, that it would be compromising, that it would not look good, blah, blah, blah. But it is a point that many restaurateurs, particularly European ones, don’t seem to understand. They think such concerns petty and parochial, the typically American tendency to exalt form over substance and be obsessed with trivial things, like a leader’s extramarital affairs. (Of course, ingenious chefs skirt the problem by adding all sorts of things that we didn’t order, then forgetting to include them in the check.) We dread those ugly scenes where chefs adamantly refuse to let us pay. We’re even more adamant, and, at the threat of creating a ruckus, we always prevail.

All this generosity–along with our own occasional lapses in self-restraint–have given us new sympathy for Oprah Winfrey, Ted Kennedy, Al Roker, and all others who are forever battling their weight. You can go to a restaurant with the best intentions, determined to stick to a salad and consommé; but the chef may feel he’s not getting a chance to strut his stuff, and suddenly the latest risotto and some new type of osso bucco and five different kinds of desserts magically appear on the table. Who can resist that?

Tim, who often visits 25 or 30 restaurants a night on his periodic inspection tours, is finally learning that he does not have to eat something in all of them. But it’s not easy: Once they find out who he is, they besiege him: “Oh, Mr. Zagat, you must try this!” “Oh, Mr. Zagat, you must try that!” And once he starts, it’s tough to stop. Tim is forever starting new diets and resolving to go to the gym. As for Nina, she looks forward to weekends in northern Dutchess County, far away from the New York City restaurant scene, where she can burn off calories in the garden and can trade in the rich sauces for fresh fruits and vegetables.

But even there, there are pitfalls–which prove, incidentally, that we don’t go for only haute cuisine. Before we leave town, Tim can’t seem to pass his favorite pizzeria, Vinnie’s, without picking up a couple of slices to go. Nina can forgo that, but both of us have grilled hot dogs on toasted rolls (Nina with a touch of mustard, Tim with heaps of sauerkraut and mustard) at the Red Rooster, a booming roadside joint about halfway in our journey. What’s worse, Tim has a weakness for McDonald’s fries, though he prefers Double Whoppers with cheese to Big Macs. And sometimes, it seems that the only thing that can get him to drive by a Kentucky Fried Chicken is if there is a Popeye’s not far away.